Higher borrowing rates and other effects of current White House anti-inflation policies may dampen this city's strong comeback in housing and commercial real estate.
Hurt harder and longer by the national real estate recession of 1974-75 than other parts of the country, the Atlanta area has been rebounding strongly this year. Most of its 300 home builders, whose output is mostly single-family suburban houses priced under $55,000, are sold out ahead of production capability. Builders have been weathering the recent upturn in mortgage rates to the 10 percent level, but the likelihood of still-higher rates could cut demand in 1979.
Prospects for home building and resales of existing houses next year have been darkened throughout the nation as the result of increased federal lending rates and constriction of the money supply. If mortgage interest rates on a long-term basis follow the short-term rates upward, as expected, builders and sellers of houses foresee a larger segment of Americans being either unable or unwilling to pay the higher costs of home ownership.
Now, more than ever since the housing boom ignited in 1977, national housing observers are fearful that the public appetite for increasingly expensive homes may peak and then fall back awhile as the national fight against inflation makes borrowing inordinately expensive - even considering the usual benefits of income tax deductions for interest and taxes.
For instance, a two-income young couple working at the Atlanta Hilton Hotel said they were frustrated in their attempts to buy a modest home without giving up "all our savings and having nothing for an emergency." Instead, they are just buying a lost on which they hope to build one day.
On the commercial realty front, Atlanta's downtown and suburban office space, which had a vacancy level above 25 percent just two years ago, has been filling up in recent months. In fact, Atlanta mortgage banker Alan Dailey insisted that only one large chunk of new downtown office space is available. Another source said there is no shortage of older space. Dailey also said he has an investor interested in financing a solid project in the Southeast, not in Atlanta, up to $50 million at a 9 1/2 percent return, which is below the current market nationally for long-term project financing.
Dailey and visiting mortgage bankers who convened here earlier last week were generally bullish about prospects for 1979, mainly because 1978 has been a good year. However, all of the 3,800 delegates to the annual meeting of the Mortgage Bankers Association were aware of prospects of rising home mortgage interest rates, which now are likely to peak at or above 10 1/2 percent early next year.
Nontheless, MBA forecasts of 1979 housing starts in the range of 1.75 million are fra more optimistic than others that hastily were revised downward last week. The MBA forecast for 1978 starts led the guessing game a year ago by being in the 2.1 million range. Now 1978 starts are expected to total more than 1.9 million (about the same as the 1977 total). But most housing industry forecasts a year ago suggested a downturn to the 1.7 level in 1978.A year ago, few forecasts indicated that housing would maintain its high 1977 level in 1978. But that was before money market certificates were created to keep dollars in thrift institutions that make mortgage loans.
In Atlanta, new housing costs per square foot of space are nearly 40 percent below those in the Washington area and most of the homes are built by firms that complete fewer than a hundred units each year. The tow largest-volume builders range between 250 and 300 homes a year.
A veteran observer said that almost all the builders now are at full capacity and that their major output is houses of about 1,800 square feet on half-acre lots. Land is less expensive here and accounts for less than 20 percent of the total cost of a house. "As you know, in other big metro areas that figure is 25 percent or more," he added.
While voices representing organized home building are pronouncing doom for the industry if mortgage rates move even higher, as expected, three economists at the MBA convention took a more sanguine approach. MBA's Thomas Hunter foresaw a slowing of economic growth but "mortgage credit flows will remain relatively unchanged." George Christie at McGraw-Hill said that 2 million new housing starts do not constitue over-building and that the housing market is now "better insulated" to handle mortgage problems than it was in 1973-74.
Robert P. Parry of Security Pacific National Bank, Los Angeles, insisted that the ecomomy has admitted "the risks of a recession are higher than a year ago." He also said the housing market has "no precedent" for current high rates.
Asked about the likelihood that the FHA-VA aVA mortgage interest rate ceiling might be raised above the current 9 1/2 percent ceiling, Harter said "unlikely." There has been speculation that the FHA-VA rate, now about three-quarters percent below most conventional rates across the nation, could ordinarily be expected to be raised to avoid heavy discount point payments by sellers (to keep pace with market yield). However, in view of the strong White House stand against inflation, any imminent change in the FHA-VA ceiling might be regarded as both inflationary and counter to policy.
MBA convention panelists reporting on vaious areas sensed no shortage of mortgage investment money. In fact, Anthony Dencie of Northern Virginia said one national insurance company has returned to the market for purchase of house mortgages. Most insurance companies deserted long-term home financing for other investments several years ago.
If there's a truly optimistic note for all segments of housing and real estate, it's in the apparently strong supply of both domestic (particularly life insurance funds) and foreign investment funds available for purchases of land, estates, office buildings and shopping centers. Pressure to put that money to work could diminish some of the expected trend to higher long-term lending rates.
In commenting on the Atlanta housing market, mortgage banker Larry Dew Jr. of Cameron-Brown Co. said that two-income couples are not yet turned off by the high level of mortgage interest rates. He also noted that more young people are moving into center city Atlanta, where some older homes are being upgraded. Dew said other couples are buying garden apartments converted to condominium ownership because few town houses are available in the Atlanta market, which seems to be mainly single-family houses or garden apartment rentals.
While Atlantas generate genuine enthusiasm about downtown rebuilding and the glamor of such eye-catchers as the towering Peachtree Plaza, they also recognize that much of the metropolitan area's consistent economic strength comes from its still-growing regional distribution and transporation activity, Coca-Cola Co.'s home office and Sears Roebuck & Co.'s catalogue headquarters.